DALE EVANS….queen of the West #3
From the book “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans - Happy Trails” - 1979
So there I was with my nose out of joint, certain my road to Broadway musical comedy had been blown up by a studio owner's brainstorm that the B-Western fans out in the hinterland wanted more song with their sagebrush. For a woman who could still remember watching large groups of down and defeated men, victims of the Depression, standing in soup lines in Chicago and sleeping beneath old newspapers on the cold cement sidewalks along Wacker Drive, I was a pretty picky lady. But not stupid.
It seemed to me the best way to get my career in Westerns over and done with was to perform so well in them that Republic would have to put me in better pictures, give me better roles.
The picture was a success, and theater managers were urging the studio to continue teaming me with Roy.
Before the year was out I had three more pictures with Roy and, when fan mail began arriving in amounts far greater than at any time in my career, it occurred to me that riding horses, holding the reins, and saying "He went thataway" wasn't the worst fate that could befall a girl.
Which isn't to say the Western movie business wasn't without its darker moments. I'm convinced to this day, in fact, that only the most ornery or lazy horses were picked for me to ride.
One afternoon as we were waiting for the shooting of a scene, we were all sitting around listening to one of Gabby Hayes's delightfully funny stories. I was already on my horse, ready to ride whenever the director was. When Gabby delivered his punch line I broke into laughter and inadvertently dug my heels into my horse's side. I thought it was the start of the Kentucky Derby. The horse was running at a full-out gallop and I was hanging onto the saddle horn for dear life, screaming in a very unladylike manner.
Now the story begins to sound like it came directly from the pages of one of our scripts: Roy jumped on Trigger and came after me, riding up alongside and grabbing me just as I was about to tumble ankle over elbow into the hot sands of the California desert.
Then there was the time I was supposed to assert myself and punch one of the bad guys in the jaw while he was trying to carry me away in a buckboard. Still relatively unschooled in bare-knuckle brawling, I threw my supposedly fake punch just as the buckboard lurched. At the time I was wearing a ring that had three large diamonds mounted on it, one of which had belonged to my mother, another to my grandmother, and one to my aunt. It turned out there would be nothing fake whatsoever about the misguided punch. The ring, which I would never wear again while shooting, opened a gash in the man's face that you wouldn't believe. They rushed first aid to him while I rushed to my dressing room scared, sick, and more than a little embarrassed.
All in all, however, it was far more enjoyable than I had expected it would be. Roy Rogers, the object of my earlier jealousy when Art Rush was working as my agent, proved to be a delightful person. To have gained the status he was already enjoying in the business, he seemed totally unaffected. While he was prone to good-natured ribbing, constantly kidding me about my Texas twang and my problems staying atop a horse, he was always helpful, and at times demonstrated the patience of Job. He was down-to-earth, not in the least bit phony. Instead of attending one party after another to talk about his latest picture or the one he would be doing next, he was far more comfortable having a few friends over for dinner in his home.
A devoted family man, he was forever talking about his wife and two little girls, never making the point that one was adopted and the other his own. When they would come out to watch us shoot, his eyes would light up.
On the set he was easily the most popular man around among the too often unrewarded crew members who took care of such things as lighting, the cameras, and the booms. They were, in fact, all members of a bowling team which Roy sponsored, and delighted in reporting to him the results of a previous night's competition.
To this day I have never met a more giving person. When we would go on the road for personal appearances, it never ceased to amaze me how much time he spent with kids. It was no show business put-on. Just as he does today, Roy Rogers loved kids more than anything else in the world.
After it was apparent that I had been more or less permanently teamed with him, a letter arrived from home in which Mother said Dad was interested in knowing more about "this cowboy actor you're making pictures with."
To put a father's worries about his daughter to rest—after all, I was married and well past voting age—I sat down and wrote him about Roy. "He's very plain and humble," I wrote. "In fact, he reminds me a lot of [my brother] Hillman. I've not once seen him trying to upstage another actor in a scene, and no matter what comes up he seems forever to be on the side of the underdog. He does a lot of wonderful things for the people he works with. So no, you don't have to worry. He's a fine person and has become a good friend. The best way to describe Roy Rogers, I guess, is that he rings true."
And though I failed to mention it in the letter, he was a truthful person. Which was more than I could say of myself.
Tommy was graduating from high school, yet I had still continued with the outlandish ploy of referring to him as my little brother instead of my son. It had begun to eat at me constantly, but I had never mustered the strength to set things straight.
So there I was, graduation night, walking into the high school auditorium in virtual disguise. I wore no makeup, had arranged my hair differently, wore dark glasses, and had picked out the plainest dress I had for one of the most rewarding moments a parent can ever hope to experience.
My son would conduct the school orchestra in a piece he had written and arranged, and then take his place with his flute as the school director took over. Tommy had become a fine musician, and I dreamed of being able to send him to music school after graduation. Even when he was just beginning to play, in fact, Caesar Petrillo, the CBS orchestra leader in Chicago, had said he had great promise and pointed out the scarcity of gifted flutists in the music world.
I was prepared to do whatever I could to spare him some of the bumpy roads I had traveled in gaining a foothold on my career. I had come to know a number of influential people in the music business, and felt sure I would be able to help with a little door-opening here and there when the time came. For the lie I had forced him to play an unwilling part in, I felt I owed him as much help as I could give him.
There were other problems. While my career seemed to be progressing nicely, little else in my life was. My marriage was on the decline. R. Dale was scoring movies for Republic and arranging for several people. His work schedule called for him to be on the job in the late afternoon and evenings, and mine was almost exactly the opposite. Neither of us considered making our careers secondary to our marriage, and it came to the unfortunate point where we really had no life together. We had allowed the Hollywood system to take hold of our lives, sending us in opposite directions.
In 1945 we were divorced.
After doing nine Westerns, I had had my fill of horses and hayseed homilies, fist-fighting and shoot-outs and getting fourth billing, after Roy's horse and then Gabby Hayes. That's the way it always read: Starring Roy Rogers and Trigger, Gabby Hayes, and Dale Evans, etc., etc. I made my march on Herb Yates's office. In my best ultimatum-delivering voice I told him that if I wasn't soon given some better roles I was prepared to quit. He carefully explained the situation to me. First, he said, you are under contract. Second, since you are, you will take the roles assigned you by the studio. Third, if you should walk out, there is a very real possibility that a suspension and legal action will be forthcoming, which could be very costly to you.
I did ten more Westerns.
But not without making an occasional wave. During a visit to Pittsburgh, I told my feelings to a reporter named Maxine Garrison. In her story for the Pittsburgh Press I was quoted as having said, "The heroine in a Western is always second-string. The cowboy and his horse always come first." She went on to speculate on how long I would be satisfied with being a second-stringer, pointing out my stage ambitions and desire to do musicals.
Republic wasn't the only one throwing a fit. Letters began coming in by the hundreds asking that I not quit. It was, frankly, as flattering as it was surprising. One letter came from a Roy Rogers Fan Club, with three thousand signatures affixed to it.
It was nice to know that I had a sizable audience which was evidently enjoying what I was doing, but my gut feeling was to fight it. I was becoming more and more typecast with each passing picture. I was part of Roy Rogers's movies, I was part of his road show, and soon I would be sharing the microphone with him on the Miles Laboratories-sponsored "Weekly Round-up" on NBC. I liked Roy very much personally; we had developed a close friendship and enjoyed being around each other, talking, sharing ideas. But our thoughts about our careers weren't the same. He was happy being a singing cowboy and had, in fact, done a little balking of his own when the studio suggested he play other roles. I was the one literally begging for other roles, and all I could get was another Western. And another.
In 1947 we finished making Bells of San Angelo at the same time my contract with Republic had run its course. I made no effort to renew it. Enough was enough. They could get themselves another cowgirl.
I went back to radio, taking a job as featured singer with Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore on their network show, while waiting for the next development in my movie career to materialize. Soon Danny Winkler was calling, much to my delight, to say that RKO wanted me for the ingenue lead in a movie to be called Show Business Out West, starring Eddie Cantor and Joan Davis. It would be, he said, a musical comedy.
What it would actually be was a musical comedy which never got off the ground. After a long wait, I was finally informed that the project had been scrapped.
I was finally getting the idea that someone, somewhere, was trying to tell me musical comedy was not in the stars for this particular Texas dreamer.
When Republic came to the rescue, asking that I reconsider and return to the studio, I was again running pretty low on options. To my pleasant surprise it was not only prepared to offer me a better contract than the one I had allowed to lapse but, for reasons I didn't even bother trying to understand, it was prepared to allow me to work in something other than Westerns.
Acting as if I had never even left, the studio publicity department announced that "Miss Evans was slowing her pace somewhat and would soon be appearing in different roles from those she had while sharing billing with Roy Rogers."
Thus it was that, with my hair done up in the finest Lana Turner fashion and wearing long gowns rather than cowboy boots, I made my dramatic debut in a movie titled The Trespasser in the spring of 1947, and even got my first full-fledged screen kiss from my co-star Doug Fowley. I felt I had arrived.
In truth, that kiss was one of the strangest experiences of my life. I had watched screen heroines getting kissed thousands of times, and it looked so easy, so natural. I mean, how hard is a kiss, really?
What the moviegoer doesn't see is all the preparation that goes on beforehand. Everywhere grips and cameramen and directors are getting things prepared while you're standing there, arm in arm, in the bright lights, waiting for someone to finally say "action." You hardly know the guy you're supposed to be madly in love with, and you barely know his name. So it's a big fat nothing, no real emotion. You get it over with, hope the director doesn't call for another take, and get on with the dialogue.
Actually, the kiss came off pretty well. The movie as a whole didn't. I'll not bore you with the reviews for the simple reason that I found no reason to save any of them. I chalked it up to experience and went on a singing tour while waiting to see what was next.
I was in Atlantic City for an engagement at the Steel Pier, when one evening during my performance I looked out into the crowd and saw Art Rush and Roy (wearing a business suit, no less). It was, quite literally, like seeing friends from back home. I joined them as soon as the show ended, and learned that Roy was in New York doing a show and had talked his manager into driving down to see me. Almost a year had passed since Arlene's untimely death and Roy, for so long dispirited and lonely, seemed fine again. The kids, being looked after by a housekeeper in his absence, were also doing nicely, he said. He enthusiastically described the new house he had purchased on Lake Hughes near Lancaster, California—a ranch he called Sky Haven. The mountain home, he said, was small but comfortable, quiet, and the locale was scenic.
I told him of Tom's enlisting in the Army and, holding true to his word about not lying publicly about being my son, had listed "Dale Evans, actress" as his mother. One of the Army's public information officers had, in turn, contacted the studio's publicity department about the matter, and had been persuaded to not make the information available to any members of the press.
We had dinner together, delighted with one another's company, and eventually a number of humorous anecdotes from the filming of movies we had done together crept into the conversation. I could see it coming; cagy, Roy Rogers is not.
"Look, Dale," he said, "the movies we did together were good. An awful lot of people liked us working as a team. Why don't you come back?"
I thanked him, but no-thanked him, making it clear that it was nothing personal. He didn't press the issue further.
When my tour was completed, I returned to Hollywood to do another picture, Slippy McGee, which, if anything, was a bigger box office flop than had been The Trespasser.
Then I sought out Herb Yates and told him I was ready to return to my horse.
It was good to be back working with Roy and Gabby and the Sons of the Pioneers. A strong family-like atmosphere was even more evident on the set when I moved back into the fold; it was as if I had never left. Everyone seemed glad to see me, and I was aware of no sign of bitterness or resentment over my self-proclaimed absence.
Another thing which occurred to me was that Roy and I had a good rapport. We were somewhat opposites in temperament, but that seemed to provide a good balance. We were straightforward with each other (he was one of the few I had told the truth about Tommy and me, for instance) and were at ease when we had talks that would sometimes stretch on for hours.
It began to occur to me that there were far worse fates than working with Roy Rogers on a daily basis, even if he wasn't interested in musical comedy.
As if I had not missed a beat, I was back in the swing of his hectic life—doing movies, radio shows, and going on the road for personal appearances and rodeo performances. Suddenly it all began to make some sense. Maybe the old axiom about there being a place for everybody and everybody having a place had some truth to it. Before the year 1947 was completed Roy Rogers was not the only Western star listed among his field's top-ten box office moneymakers. Of course, he was number one, but Dale Evans was on the list as well.
It was late in the year, with yet another picture completed, that we left for an eight-week tour which would take us to Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago. It would be, to say the least, unforgettable. We were sitting astride our horses in the chutes of the massive Chicago Stadium, fighting off the regular preperformance butterflies while waiting for a trained animal act to be completed so we could make our galloping entrance into the spotlight.
"I just talked with the kids at home," Roy said.
"Fine. They said to tell you hello."
It was, you'll agree, not an extraordinary conversation by any stretch of the imagination at that point. But then Roy reached into his pocket and brought out a small box. "Hold out your finger," he said.
It was a beautiful little gold ring with a ruby setting. A very thoughtful birthday gift, I immediately thought. After all, Halloween was just a few weeks away.
There was no smile on Roy's face as he asked, "What are you going to be doing New Year's Eve?"
"I don't have any plans," I answered.
"Fine," he said. "Why don't we get married then?"
His timing was perfect. Before I could even answer, the announcer was calling his name and off he rode, the "King of the Cowboys," the man I was going to say yes to just as soon as my horse could catch up to him.